Nepali is the national language of Nepal. Besides being spoken as a mother tongue by more than 48% of the population of Nepal, it is also spoken in Bhutan and India. The language is recognized in the Nepali constitution as an official language of Nepal.
The variety presented here is standard Nepali as spoken in Nepal. There are three major dialects: eastern, central, and western. Though many dialects can be distinguished in Nepal and other South Asian countries, there is reported to be little variation in phonology from one to another.
Nepali has 11 phonologically distinctive vowels, including 6 oral vowels and 5 nasal vowels (indicated in the IPA with tildes ~). In addition, due to a process of h-deletion, there are words in which some speakers produce long vowels, such as पहाड ('mountain') which is phonetically [paːɽ] can be analyzed phonemically as /pʌɦaɖ/.
As the above list shows, there are five nasal vowels. The high mid back vowel /o/ does not have a nasal counterpart at the phonological level; although the vowel [õ] does exist phonetically in the language, it is often in free variation with its oral counterpart, as in [hot͡so] ~ [hõt͡so] 'short', [bʱeɽaː] ~ [bʱẽɽaː] 'sheep'. Nasal vowels are not frequent in the Nepali lexicon, compared to a language such as French in which the number of nasal vowels is large. They occur mostly in verbs.
According to Bandhu et al. (1971), the evidence for the distinctiveness of vowel nasalization is not nearly as strong as that for the distinctiveness of the six oral vowels. They state that minimal pairs are easily obtainable only for the vowel /a/. Examples are shown below:
- /kap/ 'inside corner', /kãp/ 'tremble!' (2nd p. sg. imperative)
- /bas/ ('shelter'), /bãs/ ('bamboo')
- /bʱaɽa/ ('rent'), /bʱãɽa/ ('pots')
- /tat/ ('be heated!'), /tãt/ ('row')
- /t͡sap/ ('pressure'), /t͡sãp/ ('magnolia wood')
Other minimal pairs include /naũ̯/ ('name') vs. /nau̯/ ('barber') and /ɡaũ̯/ ('village') vs. /ɡau̯/ ('sing' 2nd p. sg. imperative). At the phonetic level, oral vowels can be nasalized when following a nasal consonant.
Pokharel (1989:37–38) followed two diphthongs first elaborated by Shivaraja Acharya in वर्णोच्चारण शिक्षा in 1974.
The following rules can be followed to figure out whether or not Nepali words retain the final schwa.
1) Schwa is retained if the final syllable is a conjunct consonant. अन्त (anta, 'end'), सम्बन्ध (sambandha, 'relation'), श्रेष्ठ (śreṣṭha, 'greatest'/a last name).
Exceptions: conjuncts such as ञ्च ञ्ज in मञ्च (mañc, 'stage') गञ्ज (gañj, 'city') and occasionally the last name पन्त (panta/pant).
2) For any verb form the final schwa is always retained unless the schwa-cancelling halanta is present. हुन्छ (huncha, 'it happens'), भएर (bhaera, 'in happening so; therefore'), गएछ(gaecha, 'he apparently went'), but छन् (chan, 'they are'), गईन् (gain, 'she went').
Meanings may change with the wrong orthography: गईन (gaina, 'she didn't go') vs गईन् (gain, 'she went').
3) Adverbs, onomatopoeia and postpositions usually maintain the schwa and if they don't, halanta is acquired: अब (aba 'now'), तिर (tira, 'towards'), आज (āja, 'today') सिम्सिम (simsim 'drizzle') vs झन् (jhan, 'more').
4) Few exceptional nouns retain the schwa such as: दुख(dukha, 'suffering'), सुख (sukha, 'pleasure').
Note: Schwas are often retained in music and poetry to facilitate singing and recitation.
Spoken Nepali has 30 consonants in its native system though some have tried to limit the number to 27.
The glides [j] and [w] are nonsyllabic variants of /i/ and /u/, respectively. The combination of the labio-velar approximant /w/ and /e, i, o, ʌi̯, r, w, j/ is constrained in Nepali, thus the orthographic ⟨व⟩ is always pronounced as a bilabial stop /b/ in such cases, but only sometimes otherwise. All consonants except /j, w, ɦ/ have geminates between vowels. Apart from forming lexically distinctive words, as in /tsʌpʌl/ चपल ('unstable') and /tsʌpːʌl/ चप्पल ('slipper'), gemination also forms the intensive degree of adjectives, as in /miʈʰːo/ ('very delicious'), compare /miʈʰo/ ('delicious').
The murmured stops may lose their breathy-voice between vowels and word-finally. Non-geminate aspirated and murmured stops may also become fricatives, with /pʰ/ as [ɸ], /bʱ/ as [β], /kʰ/ as [x], and /ɡʱ/ as [ɣ]. Examples of this are /sʌpʰa/ 'clean' becoming [sʌɸa] and /ʌɡʱaɖi/ 'before' becoming [ʌɣaɽi]).
Typically, sounds transcribed with the retroflex symbols ⟨ʈ, ʈʰ, ɖ, ɖʱ, ɽ, ɳ, ɽ̃⟩ are not purely retroflex [ʈ, ʈʰ, ɖ, ɖʱ, ɽ, ɳ, ɽ̃] but apical postalveolar [t̠, t̠ʰ, d̠, d̠ʱ, ɾ̠, n̠, ɾ̠̃]. Some speakers may use purely retroflex sounds after /u/ and /a/, but other speakers use the apical articulation in all positions.
Mostly words from Sanskrit have consonants that are not very common in inventory of the spoken language, occurring in borrowed words where they are prescriptively pronounced as described in Sanskrit grammars. The retroflex nasal /ɳ/ occurs in the speech of some speakers, in words such as /baɳ/ बाण ('arrow'). It is flapped [ɽ̃] in spelling pronunciations of some loanwords in Sanskrit. A posterior sibilant [ʃ] occurs in such words as /nareʃ/ नरेश ('king'). The language does not have any minimal pairs opposing /s/ and /ʃ/, and speakers sometimes use these sounds interchangeably.
- Acharya, Jayaraj (1991), A Descriptive Grammar of Nepali and an Analyzed Corpus, Georgetown University Press, ISBN 0878400737
- Bandhu, Chudamani; Dahal, Balabh Mani; Holzhausen, Andreas; Hale, Austin (1971), Nepali Segmental Phonology, Tribhuvan University Kirtipur, Nepal.: Summer Institute of Linguistics
- Clements, G.N.; Khatiwada, Rajesh (6–10 August 2007), Phonetic realization of contrastively aspirated affricates in Nepali (PDF), Saarbrücken, pp. 629–632
- Dahal, M.D. (1974), A description of Nepali: Literary and colloquial (Ph.D.), University of Pune, India
- Khatiwada, Rajesh (2007), Nepalese retroflex stops: a static palatography study of inter- and intra-speaker variability, Antwerp, Belgium, pp. 1422–1425
- Khatiwada, Rajesh (2009), "Nepali", Journal of the International Phonetic Association, 39 (3): 337–380, doi:10.1017/S0025100309990181
- Pokharel, Madhav Prasad (1989), Experimental analysis of Nepali sound system (Ph.D.), University of Pune, India
- आचार्य, शिवराज (1974), नेपाली वर्णोच्चारणशिक्षा, साझा प्रकाशन,काठमाडौँ
- बन्धु, चुडामणि (२०२५ ) नेपाली भाषाको उत्पत्ति, साझा प्रकाशन, काठमाडौँ (२०५२ [5th ed., 1995])
- पोखरेल, मा. प्र. (2000), ध्वनिविज्ञान र नेपाली भाषाको ध्वनि परिचय, नेपाल राजकीय प्रज्ञा प्रतिष्ठान, काठमाडौँ ।